top of page

Cameras for Walruses

June 20, 2023

Engineering drawing of the Zodiac Pro 500 with camera and boom, by Zatzworks.

We dropped off two of the BBC crew – Helen and George – on Round Island. They would be camping for the next couple of weeks on a grassy ledge above Boat Cove, the only decent landing spot on the island. They had two long-lens RED cameras to get shots of the walruses on the beach from far enough back not to spook them.

The three of us – Ernie, the cameraman, Poppy the producer, and I – took the Endeavour into the lee of Right Hand Point, about 9 nautical miles north, the nearest anchorage in easterly conditions, to assemble and test the rest of the camera equipment in calm water.

We had a camera with a giant fish-eye lens mounted on a radio-controlled surface drone. It was a boxy Pelican case with a giant glass eye on the front, little propellors on the side, and a miniature tower on the top to receive radio signals from the operator. We launched it off the Endeavour’s swim step with Ernie at the joysticks. The drone went out 40 feet, Ernie turned it to the right, and it capsized. When we retrieved it, we opened the case and seawater poured out. The electronics were smoking.

By radio, Helen told us that another underwater camera, which they called the “clam cam,” had been bolted to a boulder at one of the haul-out spots. The first images were good, then the tide came in, a couple of waves hit the clam cam, and it went dark.

Not long after the death of the clam cam, she called back with the news that one of the RED cameras got wet and stopped recording. (Helen had been shooting an astonishing 15 hours a day).

Our main camera was a GSS C516 gimbal with a CN20/50-1000 lens and an 8k Red Helium camera inside. This big round black camera was hung off a long counter-balanced aluminum arm, which in turn was welded to a half-inch aluminum plate (all provided by Zatzworks, in Homer), and bolted to the bow of my new 15-1/2-foot Zodiac inflatable. The gimble was motorized to keep the image stable and level – impossible to do otherwise on a bouncing rubber boat. The boat was driven by a 40-horsepower gasoline outboard and a 32-volt electric trolling motor; near walruses, we shut off the outboard and used the electric motor.

The camera and boom weighed about 300 pounds, with another two hundred pounds of steel counterweights. The batteries to drive the motorized gimble weighed another hundred pounds. And the batteries to run the trolling motor were another seventy-five pounds. The three people on board – a director, a cameraman, and the driver, were another five hundred pounds or so. That little boat was right at the maximum safe payload of 2,338 pounds.

It worked brilliantly.

In the mornings, I would winch the Zodiac down from the top deck, Ernie would assemble the camera system, and we would all help load the batteries and counterweights. Then three of us would head out for a day amongst the walruses; Ernie was always the cameraman, but the other positions rotated. In the evenings, Ernie would take it all apart, we’d lift the batteries and counterweights back on board, and I’d winch the Zodiac back up to the top deck. It was a lot of work, but Ernie and Poppy got the shots they needed.

A few days later, anchored back at Right Hand Point, a fast boat from Togiak brought us a new crew person, Josh Vest, who was replacing a crew person we had lost back in Dillingham. A couple of weeks later the fast boat came back with Usha Amin, another producer from the BBC, and Poppy left us to go back to England and start editing.

The GSS camera in action, Poppy Riddle (l) directing, Ernie Kovacs (c) filming, Josh Vest steering.

The BBC island crew: Helen Hobin (l), Usha Amin (c), and George Ellis (r) at Boat Cove.


bottom of page